by Sarah K. White

Should you hire for bimodal IT?

May 09, 2016
Agile DevelopmentCIODeveloper

Since Gartner coined the term of bimodal IT, plenty of CIOs have jumped on the bandwagon and separated their IT departments into two camps. But a recent report from Forrester suggests that bimodal IT only complicates things, and the real success lies in business technology units.rn

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Modern IT departments are struggling to balance needing to innovate while also maintaining legacy systems to keep the business running smoothly. As a result, one popular answer, as proposed by Gartner, has been to shift to bimodal IT. The idea is that bimodal IT separates the department into two camps, one that focuses on a more traditional side of IT and another that invests in fast paced innovation. It’s been hailed as the future of IT — unless you talk to Forrester, that is. The research firm’s recent report, The False Promise of Bimodal IT, says bimodal IT isn’t the future for the enterprise, but instead that businesses should adopt a “business technology” approach.

In the report, Forrester interviewed companies including Fujitsu, Philips, General Electric and Hewlett Packard Enterprise to get a realistic take on bimodal IT. Forrester also used survey data taken from its 2015 Global Business Technographic Business and Technology Services Survey, which polled 2,812 business with 500 or more employees and technology decision-makers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S.

The results overwhelmingly suggest that we’re living in the age of the customer, and according to Forrester, that means the focus for IT also has to involve improving the user experience for new products and software. But, traditionally, IT has been known to move slower than the pace of technology — maintaining back-end and legacy systems to ensure businesses stay efficient and secure.

Separating IT into two departments so that one is free to innovate quickly, while the other can move slower on the back-end sounds like a good idea to some, but not to Forrester. Rather, Forrester’s report outlines that to create an agile IT department, IT doesn’t need to be separated, but instead the department needs a complete and total makeover that addresses the business technology as a whole.

The concept behind bimodal IT makes sense — you have one team dedicated to maintaining legacy systems, networks and hardware. And on the other side, you have a team that is invested in creating innovation, implementing the best and greatest in the industry. However, the recent report from Forrester points out that this can simply cause undue competition, forcing the two teams to fight for — already limited — resources, funding, skills and overall attention from the C-Suite.

As John McCarthy, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester says, “bimodal IT creates a two-class system that adds complexity and kills culture. At a time when businesses need to drive speed and agility, it makes no sense to have two groups competing for funding, resources, skills, and the business’ attention.” So before you start hiring IT professionals with a bimodal IT strategy in mind, you should consider if the model will actually work well for your business and consider if an alternate approach will better serve the business model.

[ Related story: What Gartner’s Bimodal IT Model Means to Enterprise CIOs ]

Bimodal IT makes things complex

Technology has changed the expectations of clients and consumers — it’s easier than ever to fire off a Tweet complaining about customer service, or to create a post on Facebook disparaging a brand. And, as Forrester points out, that’s placed a burden on IT that they haven’t experienced in the past — they need to consider the customer at every turn, which means always looking towards the latest and greatest technology.

The reality of business is changing, and things businesses never had to consider in the past are quickly becoming growing priorities, in fact the study found that for 77 percent of North American and European services decision-makers, “addressing rising customer expectations is a top priority.” It also found that 74 percent acknowledge that they need to improve innovation within IT and their company overall. As a result, CIOs have naturally turned to Gartner’s bimodal IT strategy, hoping to foster innovation by building a dual IT department from existing teams within the organization.

Forrester’s second point as to why bimodal IT is unnecessarily complex is that it’s counterintuitive in an environment where customer satisfaction is paramount. “Customers’ expectations necessitate the streamlining of operational processes and systems. For example, Delta Air Lines had to change operational systems in areas like maintenance crew scheduling to improve on-time arrival. In parallel, digital disruption forces organizational simplicity and agility as firms spin off noncore assets or combine assets with others to scale,” says McCarthy.

McCarthy claims that bimodal IT simply reinforces a focus on technology, rather than the customer, which is ultimately a step backwards in this modern landscape. Another point he makes is that bimodal IT also encourages the idea that back-end systems can be left alone. But businesses who believe this will be doing themselves a disservice he says, even legacy systems in place need to change and adapt to the fast-paced climate in technology.

Bimodal IT, “perpetuates the myth that back-end systems can be left as they are. While some systems may change less frequently, they need to evolve quickly when they do change,” says McCarthy. Another interesting argument is that bimodal IT ignores a holistic approach to technology — especially now that technology isn’t just for IT, it’s paramount to the entire business. As the study points out, nearly every department in the company has some focus on technology, whether its product development, field service or ecommerce, and these departments need to be involved in the conversation around technological innovation.

[ Related story: Why bimodal IT kills your culture and adds complexity ]

Business technology is Forrester’s answer

So if businesses shouldn’t adopt bimodal IT, then how should they address these growing concerns around the customer experience and innovation? Forrester suggests a unified department dubbed “business technology,” or BT, stating that it’s the best solution for businesses that don’t want to silo IT into two groups. According to Forrester, BT can engage the C-suite and board, making them more likely to work with IT to help improve the technology within the company. The study supports this idea, it found that 39 percent of North American and European service decision-makers began to prioritize digital, more training and education for executives naturally occurred, making everyone better informed.

Moving towards BT can also help business leaders feel more ownership over technology, according to the report. It means that technology experts from every department can work together in a cohesive way to elevate the business’ digital strategy. It creates an environment that is more focused on the customer experience, leading the way towards a more agile and efficient version of IT. Basically, Forrester wants businesses to redefine technology within the organization, rather than try to continue with a traditional IT approach.

And as McCarthy points out, the study shows 67 percent of businesses are “undergoing a business transformation,” so it’s a good time to reimagine IT from the ground up. He says, “It does not make sense that firms will only be fine tuning IT at the edges. Given the increasing role of technology in engaging customers and differentiating products and services you need an IT transformation.”

Not everyone agrees

Some businesses, however have found success with a bimodal IT strategy and disagree with Forrester’s outlook on the concept. Avnet CIO, Steve Phillips, shifted his company to a bimodal IT format and has found it’s made the department run more efficiently and it hasn’t drawn a line in the sand between the “innovative” and “traditional” camps. “We found that bimodal IT provided a strategic approach to better meet the needs of our business. At Avnet, we’re using an agile development process for those systems that the business users interact the most. We always work in partnership with the business to develop our IT projects,” he says.

For Phillips, bimodal IT hasn’t brought on a lot of the challenges that Forrester outlines; perhaps because they alter their approach depending on the project. At Avnet, Phillips says they still approach collaborative projects differently than ones that require a more systematic approach. For him, “bimodal IT is really about selecting the right tool for the job.” And for businesses that want to adopt bimodal IT, this seems to be the real key — adapting bimodal IT in a way that works for the business, not changing the business to work with bimodal IT.

“Bimodal is more about the way requirements are captured and documented, development tasks are prioritized and the systems are delivered. Development teams have been delivering innovation through traditional methodologies for as long as IT has existed, and to suggest otherwise would imply that systems have never evolved,” says Phillips.

In this instance, Avnet has built its own approach to Gartner’s bimodal IT strategy, and for them it’s worked. That suggests that it might not necessarily be detrimental to a business if they choose to side with bimodal IT over business technology, but that businesses need to define their own approach. And, what both Gartner and Forrester propose, at a fundamental level, are new and unique ways to envision the future of IT.

Learn from bimodal IT mistakes

While Forrester has a new approach to IT with Business Technology, that doesn’t mean bimodal IT should be thrown out the window either. Like in the case of Avnet, who avoided many of the proposed pitfalls of bimodal IT, it certainly works for some companies, but each corporation will undoubtedly need to reconsider its approach to technology. It’s especially important as the environment shifts to improving the customer experience, as Forrester states. The biggest take away is that however you approach IT, it needs to be holistic, and it should involve the C-suite and board members, so that everyone understands the vital role technology plays in the enterprise.

The bottom line is that bimodal IT isn’t a one-size- fits all solution, and BT most likely isn’t either. According to McCarthy, for a successful IT remodel, the biggest takeaway is that IT isn’t just about IT anymore, so businesses need to focus on the growing involvement of technology in every industry and department.

“The bimodal IT approach puts all the change on the shoulders of IT. But in reality, product development, field service, ecommerce, customer experience and new media need to step up their game in the digital era,” McCarthy says.